The National Assembly, which the opposition finally joined earlier this month after boycotting it since September, will officially vote for its leadership today, with the Cambodia National Rescue Party set to take six of 13 permanent standing committee spots.
The unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has been presented by the CNRP as a breakthrough moment in Cambodian democracy and a chance for substantive debate and scrutiny to enter what has long been regarded as a rubber-stamp institution.
But Sam Rainsy, the only real challenger to Prime Minister Hun Sen in the past decade and the man who led the CNRP in last July’s watershed election, will take a back seat in terms of an official position.
As an “ordinary National Assembly member”, he will instead be able to advise and guide his “higher-ranking colleagues”, he said yesterday.
“I want to give my younger colleagues an opportunity to gain experience, to show how to unselfishly serve the public and to become the new leaders that this country needs,” he said.
Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, who headed the Human Rights Party before it merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP, will be the opposition’s highest-ranking member in parliament as first deputy president.
Senior lawmakers Eng Chhay Eang, Pol Ham, Yem Ponharith, Mu Sochua and Yim Sovann will chair five commissions, while Son Chhay, Ou Chanrith, Mao Monivann, Long Ry and Tioulong Saumura (who is married to Rainsy) will hold the deputy chairs on the other five commissions controlled by the CPP.
All 10 have previously served as lawmakers with either the SRP, HRP or Funcinpec.
While Rainsy’s decision to stay above the fray is wise, observers say, he likely had little other choice.
Ahead of the election, Rainsy and Sokha had agreed that if the newly formed party won, Sokha would become parliamentary president and Rainsy would become Prime Minister.
Having already positioned himself as competing for the executive branch of government, and letting Sokha focus on the legislative side, the top parliamentary position given to the CNRP was Sokha’s for the taking, analysts say.
“What’s he going to do? Fight with Kem Sokha for the position of first vice president?” said political commentator Ou Virak.
But opposition spokesman Yim Sovann rejected that the pre-election agreement had anything to do with the recent doling out of positions, pointing to Rainsy’s history of stepping aside to allow others to hold leadership positions in parliament.
“When he chaired the SRP, you can see that he did not take any position in the [parliament]. He sacrificed everything for his subordinates,” Sovann explained.
But the CNRP leader is also hoping that rule changes in parliament will be made to formally recognise the opposition, a feature of the British Westminister parliamentary system that he has made no secret of wanting to see implemented in Cambodia.
Such changes would see him recognised as the “leader of the opposition”, and depending on how far the ruling party is willing to go, could allow him to debate directly with Hun Sen.
While CNRP whip Son Chhay yesterday said the party would still be pushing for a full shadow cabinet and a budget to scrutinise the government, Rainsy said that the party would be “realistic” about what it can get.
Senior CPP figures have opposed the formation of a shadow cabinet.
“We will be realistic and flexible in playing the role of a loyal, constructive and creative opposition,” Rainsy said, adding that recognition of the opposition would be in line with the July 22 agreement between the two parties.
Senior CPP lawmakers Cheam Yeap and Chheang Vun could not be reached yesterday, and assembly spokesman Nhem Thavy declined to comment on what sort of compromise could be reached, saying it was the decision of senior leaders.
“I understand that lawmakers have their ideas. And they want to do this standard or that standard.… This is the ideas of the top leaders in politics, I do not have any comment on this.”
Separately, 12 civil society groups, including prominent election watchdogs Comfrel and NICFEC, have called on the parliament to keep current second deputy president Khuon Sodary in her position.
Sodary is expected today to give up her post in favour of first deputy Nguon Nhel, who will step down one rung to make way for Kem Sokha.
The groups say that keeping a female in the position is part of Cambodia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
But spokesman Thavy said the reshuffle was a “political decision” and had nothing to do with gender.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA